North Korea has been in the news a lot lately, and although I’d rather not think about why, my kids have questions: Who are these people, and why are they targeting us?
In the Shadow of the Sun by Anne Sibley O’Brien, an action-packed, middle-grade novel, offers a fascinating glimpse into the closed-off culture of North Korea, as well as explorations of identity, race, and privilege, by a writer who grew up in South Korea.
Two American kids, Mia and Simon, visit North Korea with their dad to do humanitarian food relief when their family vacation goes horribly wrong. Thirteen-year-old Mia, adopted from South Korea as a baby by her Irish-American parents, resents reminders of her “difference” within her family. Sixteen-year-old Simon, who is white, sulks over trouble he caused back home. When Mia discovers a cell phone with photos from a North Korean forced-labor camp, and officials arrest her dad, the siblings must resolve their differences as they trek 150 miles to the Chinese border to call the American embassy, deliver the phone, and save their dad.
Between adventure-filled chapters, close-up glimpses of local people’s lives–a tour guide, a young soldier, a village girl–humanize North Korean citizens. Questions of identity and race are also deftly handled; Mia blends into crowds, whereas Simon sticks out, the opposite from their Connecticut hometown. At the same time, as an American kid with little Korean knowledge, Mia feels like an outsider in Korea, whereas Simon reflects for the first time on the privilege of being white back home, a liability on the run. Their conversations during breaks in the action feel believable and especially relevant.
The overall effect is sympathy for the North Korean people, even if their government is capable of terrible things. It’s a sensitive portrayal of a culture and country about which most of the world knows very little. At the end of the book, the author includes an extensive bibliography and videography to understand more about North Korea, as well as information for ways that readers–even kids–can help support the North Korean people trying to effect change in their country.
I highly recommend this book for anyone age 11 and up, adults included.